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St Francis Farm
June 2017

            When Joanna and Zachary were growing up without going to school, I had to fill out forms for the state about their education. In answer to a question about our number of school days, I said that if they were breathing they were learning, and if they died I would inform the state. We’re all still breathing and this spring has provided several lessons, not necessarily of my planning or choosing. 

            Robins have persisted in trying to build a nest on the top of the shelves in the entry where I keep some tools for quick access.  The top shelf is about chin height and between the door into the barn and the one out into the parking area. Over and over I’ve been startled by a bird flying up close to my face as I hurried in or out. Dozens of times we’ve removed a muddy partial nest only to find another begun the next hour or next day. Zach put a small shelf under an overhang nearby and we tried moving some of the nest material there, but the robins didn’t take the hint. They haven’t rebuilt now for 3 days and I’m hoping they’ve found another spot they like, but they made me think about persistence and stubbornness. I remember times I’ve been discouraged when something I thought was a good idea just wasn’t moving forward and wonder what guidance I might have been missing.

            I tend our herb and flower gardens and in spring I divide many of the perennials. Visitors who admire whatever is blooming through the seasons are invited to come in spring to get plant divisions. This year an Amish neighbor and a woman who found the farm through Facebook came for culinary and medicinal herbs. A man who came to buy four shiitake logs took various bee plants, and one of our Directors took plants for early spring bloom.  Renee (see her article on page 4) helped us dig up plants at the farm to make a butterfly garden for Donna who has been admiring our gardens and enjoying the butterflies during her weekly visits over two years. When people offer to pay for the plants I tell them that I needed to divide plants to keep them productive and if no one wants the extras they are tossed into the ditch  behind the mailbox. My Amish neighbor told me she’d been taught that plants grew better if you gave something for them, and I told her that I thought perennials had a lesson to teach about the importance of sharing, that left undivided they die out in the center.  She ended up bringing us butter, sharing that was satisfying all around. 

             This spring has reminded me that planning well and working hard are no guarantee of success. Unexpected warmth in mid-winter is followed by a cool spring and last year’s drought by flooding and more rain to come.  My schedule for breeding rabbits to have litters born after the cold and to coincide with lush spring growth worked well last spring. But this year we have just 2 litters of the 4 or 5 expected.  The woodland wildflowers bloomed late and the trees leafed out early. A volunteer whose application looked good and who wanted to come for two and a half weeks in May was neither helpful nor congenial. I was tired and discouraged when he left after 4 days. I try to recognize what I can do and what must be left in God’s hands, remembering to savor the light, the many shades of new green, the surviving goat kid, the fleeting beauty of trout lilies, the first asparagus.

            During the 16 years we’ve been trying to live an alternative to the consumer culture, that culture has become more all encompassing. The widening divisions between and within political parties, social classes and religions as well as the concern with image fostered by social media can leave me feeling discouraged and disconnected. Now, more than ever before, I am grateful for our practice of beginning each day in prayer. As Thomas Kelly reminds us, all we really can do for anyone is to bring them into the presence of God and leave them there.  To do that we must keep returning to that presence ourselves, however many times we are distracted and stray.  --by Lorraine

Agriculture: Patience, Persistence, Grace

Look ahead. You cannot complete the task. Neither are you permitted to lay it down. –The Talmud


Farming requires both persistence and patience; we have to work hard and smart and then accept that weather and other things are outside our control.  Climate change increases the unpredictability. This spring has been a reminder of how little we understand and can control—and how much still grows and is good.

We had another warm February/March followed by a cold April and early May.  This year I started the tomato seedlings earlier, remembering how last year’s seedlings grew slow and stunted after a late start in cool weather. This year’s tomatoes (and peppers and eggplants) grew fast in the greenhouse, and I started putting them outside to harden off. It snowed on May 8, and the seedlings stayed inside for several days; when the weather warmed and I put the seedlings back out some developed windburn and sunscald. They look odd but they’ll recover. I set the largest tomatoes out mid-May, put a covering frame over them and prepared to protect them against frosts. Later successions will stay inside until the weather settles. Peas, spinach, lettuce, onions, radishes, carrots and parsnips are up and growing; I know they can handle the cold. I mostly remembered to plant them at slighter and more even depths than last year, which has helped them to germinate all at once. I’ve set out chard and kale seedlings, and we’ve begun to harvest asparagus. These plants all survived the snow.  The potato shoots were just barely emerging and have died back; more will grow.  The newly transplanted strawberries are thriving; they’re not supposed to fruit this year anyway, and their leaves can handle freezes. The grape leaves opened in the warm weather and froze in the cold—the vine will live but we probably won’t have fruit this year. The apple blossoms weathered the cold. They’re lovely now, and we’re hoping for a good apple harvest.

Last year the weather turned dry right after we planted things, while it was still cold enough to freeze the hose. This year it rains and rains (and, occasionally, snows) so watering hasn’t been an issue.  This is good for the early greens and asparagus, and good for replenishing the water table after last year’s drought.  A little more sunshine will be good for the gardener’s mood. The pasture and the places where we cut greens for the rabbits are growing quickly and lushly in the rain.

We’re going to try growing sweet potato vines for the first time this year.  Our friend and new Board member Sarah van Norstrand (see article on page 6) gave us some home-grown tubers. We set them in pots of wet soil and jars of water to see if they’d sprout (directions for how to start sweet potatoes vary widely).  Most rotted. One has put out a fair number of shoots which we’ll soon be able to break off, root, and plant out.  If they thrive I’ll enjoy eating the roots and the rabbits will enjoy the greens.

One of our rabbit does who bore good litters for us last year had kits who are five weeks old now, growing fast and thriving.  The other proven doe failed to conceive. We bred 2 young does for the first time this year. The first had kits and did well with them for the first few days. Then we had an 80-degree day in the middle of what had been a cool season. The doe stopped eating, and stopped making milk. We figured out what to offer to get her eating again, and she’s all right, but she lost the kits. The other new doe had kits a week ago. Two died; the other seven are thriving.

Our goat Dora went into labor in the evening of April 27, her due date.  Her labor is always slow and non-textbook so I was slow to realize something was wrong.  By the time I knew she needed help it was too late to reach the vet directly. I left a message with the answering service, waited a while, and then tried to reach in and help with the birth myself. The first kid was very badly positioned, and I was only partly able to correct this before delivery. That kid and the next one to be born (unaided) were dead on arrival. I was upset, and so was Dora. But the third kid slipped out easily, sat up and began to squall, and his mother stopped acting distressed and started to clean him up.   Then the vet arrived, checked that there was nothing wrong with Dora that time and antibiotics couldn’t fix, and left us a series of injections to give her. The kid, Tres, is now three weeks old and thriving, and Dora is eating well, acting calm, and giving us all the milk we need and enough so we’re sending goat cheese to the soup kitchen.

Despite the difficult weather we’ve had visitors and volunteers helping in the garden.  We asked one volunteer to leave early because he didn’t seem able or willing to focus on working attentively and not breaking the plants.  The others have been good help and good company.  I’m grateful for Renee Tougas’s help and company on her four-day visit (see her article on page 4). I also enjoyed JoJo McVey coming for the day to help me put brush in for the peas, hunt for fiddleheads in the woods and talk about faith, nature and family.

We had a good harvest of fiddleheads, and the wild leeks are still coming in.  This is the other side of the unpredictability of growing things. Sometimes we work and don’t get what we worked for. Sometimes we get lovely things we didn’t have to work for.  Even in the garden the growth comes by grace as much as by our work. As Wendell Berry writes in Sabbaths,

Harvest will fill the barn: for that

The hand must ache, the face must sweat,

And yet no leaf or grain is filled

By work of ours. The field is tilled

And left to grace. That we may reap,

Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood

Rests on our day and finds it good.


Tres, one day old

Rabbits, 4 weeks old

Renee's Story

This spring I read the book "The Long Loneliness" by Dorothy Day and was introduced to not just her amazing life but the Catholic Worker Movement. I googled "Catholic Worker Movement" and discovered  St. Francis Farm, a few hours from my home in Montreal. As I read about the farm my curiosity and interest grew to visit for myself. I had a four-day window in April that was perfect on my end. I submitted my volunteer application and was delighted to hear back that yes, I could come at that time. So I put it on the calendar, double checked that my passport hadn't expired, and started to anticipate my "trip to the farm."

I went to the farm to have a "farm" experience. I desperately need to get out of the city on a regular basis to be in touch with nature - rolling farmland, wooded creeks, the absence of traffic and instead the cacophony of spring peepers - these are things my soul craves. Though I cannot follow these principles in the city to the extent I wish, I esteem sustainable living practices such as growing your own food, raising your own meat and milk, heating your home with wood. And in spite of regular walking and biking, seasonal hiking and cross-country skiing, my body grows soft. Volunteering at the farm provided an opportunity to connect with these aspects of being human: my need for nature and physical engagement with the land.

More importantly for me however, being at the farm provided the opportunity to nurture the essence of being human - living in community, serving one another, and engaging with each other's hearts and minds. The depth of my experience at the farm in these matters, specifically the spiritual and intellectual conversations I shared with Joanna while we worked together in the gardens, far surpassed my expectations. I realize not everyone visiting the farm will be explicitly seeking this kind of connection. Lucky for you Quakers do not proselytize but show a lot of respect for different faith traditions and lifestyle choices. But if you want to have searching conversations for how to live as a spiritual being in a physical world you've come to the right place.

Of pedagogical interest to me was the family's homeschooling experience and history. Zachary and Joanna were unschooled in the best application of that philosophy of education. They were set loose on their interests, taught to think critically through reading and dialogue, and given real world responsibilities in which to grow skills. To experience the fruits of their education, to be the recipient of their competence in farming, woodlot management and building construction, and to learn from Lorraine, an experienced homemaker and homeschooler, to be on the receiving end of their generosity of spirit was a gift.

My work experience at the farm included digging and helping to transplant perennials and lilacs to a neighbor's garden; weeding and planting the farm garden with potatoes, radishes, onions, and carrots;and transplanting peppers, eggplants, and tomato seedlings into larger pots. I also helped Joanna tend to the animals, feeding the rabbits and chickens, moving the goats, and mostly watching Joanna milk the goats since I was inept at that job! All of this work was made most enjoyable by companionship and open-hearted conversation.

The idea of a spiritual director, an ancient Catholic and Orthodox tradition, is quite popular in the online faith communities and discussions I find myself in these days. I've been fascinated by the idea but unsure of where to start and questioning the necessity of a spiritual director in my life, outside of the discipling relationships I have in the community of believers to which I belong.

I am cautiously curious about the idea of meeting with a spiritual director, which as I understand it, is having a safe place to be spiritually vulnerable, to say “I’m questioning this, I’m seeing things from this perspective, how do you see it?" without worrying about the attachments and expectations within my own spiritual community. The farm does not advertise as providing spiritual direction, but my heart was in that space, and it was what I found in the three days of conversations, working, and eating together. I didn't know how desperately hungry I was for this kind of connection and opportunity until I was feasting on it.

The weather during my visit was alternately sunny, warm, with blue skies; and chilly, wet, and overcast. In a word it was spring. Evenings were spent walking in the woods, visiting with Joanna and Lorraine in the chapel/library, and journaling and reading in my room. It was wonderful.A few things you can expect at the farm: the smell of woodsmoke in the air, early mornings, and physical work. You can expect to eat well. The food is hearty, seasonal, and plentiful. During my stay in April our meals included lots of cold storage and preserved vegetables, fresh goat's milk cheeses, farm grown shiitake mushrooms, wild-harvested ramps and fiddleheads, a bit of rabbit meat and pork (both raised on the farm), beans and homemade breads.

My time at the farm felt too short and just right. It was intense for me on several levels, I dived deep into conversation with Joanna and Lorraine, I opened my heart and mind to learn, I worked hard. I fully engaged my heart, mind, and body in the experience.  I had a sore shoulder upon my return home, but this was my own doing, as I was asked repeatedly while working if I was managing ok. Arriving home with a handful of book recommendations, dirty clothes, mud caked boots, and a small plastic container of goat's milk cheese that I helped to make, I felt physically tired but spiritually energized and deeply grateful for this opportunity.

Zach's Work

            The weather this spring has been a little odd here, but we had a good maple syrup season anyway.  This is the first year that we’ve actually made 10 gallons of syrup, one quart for each of our 40 taps. We were able to pull the taps a little before the sap turned sour since we got in on the early end of the run.  The snow was deep at first but because we had such unusually warm temperatures in late February it melted fast.  I tapped a few new trees this year, and stopped tapping a few that hadn’t produced as much in past years. 

            In February I made a new dining table to replace the one I had made 9 years ago.  The old one was made from wood that was a bit too thin so the top would warp seasonally with the humidity changes.  The new one is made from cherry from a tree that grew in the old cow pasture and was split in two by ice, which I cut into boards last year.  The new table is slightly smaller but has a leaf that can be added so it is more adaptable to the varying numbers of visitors we have.   I had hoped to also make a better top for the kitchen island counter but I did not get to that yet.  I put the newly made tongue-in-groove pine flooring into the old kitchen in the farmhouse as planned, and completed the trim around the doors and windows.  I’ll put a clear finish on the new wood and repaint the other floors in the downstairs of the house during May.  We had a community service volunteer who came on 5 days for four hours each and was a great help with many tasks, including repainting some other floors in the house, splitting and loading firewood and moving mushroom logs.  He also helped build a new cover for the summer chicken yard out of wood, which should last better and be easier to move than what we had before.  

In March I cut down a large oak tree to make into more shiitake mushroom logs.  We inoculated 72 oak logs and 8 sugar maple in late March and have begun to sell them.  Last year we did a similar sized batch and sold some logs and kept some to use this year, and when we unstacked them this spring and leaned them on the walls of the mushroom enclosure before a heavy rain almost all of them spontaneously fruited without having to be soaked.  A lot of the mushrooms didn’t develop their full size due to the cold temperatures, but we still got a large harvest and dried some as well as eating some as they came in.  We’ll start soaking those logs in batches once it gets a little warmer, which we think should happen soon, though as I write this in early May we have a bit of snow coming down.         

As the snow was melting I was able to get out to the woods with the crawler tractor on cold days when the snow froze again temporarily and skid some heavy logs out of a difficult area.  I still have some more work to do on the crawler and the winch but it was nice to actually be able to put it to work and see what it could do.  I’ll use it in some other areas that are hard to access with the wheel tractors later in the summer or the fall, once the ground dries up.        

 I cut almost all of this year’s firewood to fill the woodshed from wood that was left behind by the power company trimming crew last summer along the right-of-way where the power line runs through the woods. Less traveling saved time, but it was a bit of a challenge to sort the good wood out from the brush piles.  The trees that had been cut down were all cut into lengths under 20 feet, and some of them were quite accessible to cut up with the chainsaw while others were buried in brush.  The shed is full now and the emergency firewood pile in the barn has also been restocked.  This year we needed all of it, but some years lately we haven’t used any, so it’s hard to guess how much will be needed.

We decided this year to divide the pasture behind the goat shed into two areas to encourage more even grazing. Now we have a small fence that runs across the pasture with a gate that can be set to either side so that the goats can go in and out to one half of the pasture or the other but not both at once.This seems to be working so far but we’ll have to see what effect it has on the quality of the pasture as the season progresses.  I tore down the rotting grape arbor and built a new lower support frame for the vines.  This will make it easier to cover it to keep the wild animals away from the grapes, and I hope it will also make it easier for Joanna to reach and tend them.   

I had to rebuild the movable pigpen because the wood frame was starting to rot.  I finished just in time to pick up our piglet on May 12. She settled in very easily and has been drinking up the whey we’d been accumulating from making more cheese as the milk supply increased. 

Meet the New Director

 My name is Sarah VanNorstrand, and I live just outside of Cazenovia, NY. I'm 30 years old, married to a wonderful person, and I make a living through a combination of traveling to call for contra dances and working on two different local farms. I grew up in an evangelical Christian household and attended church regularly. About a year ago, my husband, Andrew, and I decided to follow a friend to a new church in Syracuse. We've found a wonderful new place to worship and explore our faith and the nature of the world at Plymouth Congregational Church, which is part of the United Church of Christ. 

I've always been very interested in social justice and have been trying to determine how I can work to promote equality and compassion within the Church and the broader culture. I believe in the work that Lorraine, Joanna and Zach are doing at St. Francis farm. I think that in this moment, there is little that is more important than valuing simplicity, connecting with the natural world, and caring for our brothers and sisters no matter where they are from, what they do, how they look, how they identify, or even what they think (which for me is the hardest one of all).  I'm excited to be a part of the workings of the farm, even if I'm not able to be involved in a day-to-day manner.

The Farm Economy

The grace of God, the land, unpaid labor, and donations are the basis of the farm economy. We’re grateful for your prayers and donations and welcome helping hands especially through the growing season.  In recent years income that once came from hosting groups has come from selling lumber and some hay. This year we decided to only make the hay we need for our goats and rabbits. Instead we inoculated shiitake logs in March which we hope to sell before they begin fruiting in the fall.

Shiitake logs--$20 for 4”-6” diameter or $25 for 6” to 8”--all are 3 feet long.

Ash, hickory, and maple lumber--$1/board foot. Also sometimes have oak, cherry, or butternut for sale at $1.50/board foot. 

Nature Notes

The woodland wildflowers had a shorter run than usual this year as the cold hung on late but the trees leafed out early. But they were as lovely as ever--spring beauty, trout lily, trillium, violets, jack-in-the-pulpit. Now in mid-May they’ve faded but the birds are back and their dawn chorus wakes me at first light. I walk as the sun is rising, catching in the dewdrops and lighting up the blossoms on the apple trees. I see rose-breasted grosbeaks, orioles, and scarlet tanagers; I hear the wood thrush and veery singing in the woods. The flickers have made a nest hole in a half dead cottonwood between the sawmill and the well house. At dusk I’m out again to listen for the woodcocks displaying on the hilltop, at the edge of the orchard, in the long hayfield. Sometimes I hear the barred owls or startle a deer. Bats swoop above my head, feasting on the bugs that try to feast on me. The peepers are still calling, joined now by high toad trills and deep bullfrog rumbles.  I go to sleep to their chorus as I wake to the birds.